Playing an Assassin

Violence and race in Assassin's Creed III

Posted Aug 27, 2012

Assassin's Creed III's Connor with Tomahawk

Assassin's Creed III's Connor with Tomahawk (Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed III is a much-anticipated video game, due to be released in the Fall of 20121. As an expert on video game violence and their effects, you might expect me to be interested in this. Because I’ve conducted research on how race is depicted in video games and how this effects players, you might also expect me to be interested in the fact that the game’s main character, Connor Kenway (also called Ratohnhaké:ton) is half Native American and half British.

I imagine I might be expected to say two things: namely that violent video games are bad and that a Native American tomahawking victims is racist. But I actually do not think it’s that simple. Instead, I’d rather discuss the game in a more nuanced way--one that considers multiple points of view. I really think it’s best to be a critical thinker and not to hop automatically on one side or the other, but to explore questions, ideas and possibilities. Whether your interest in the game or others like it is as a parent, a player, or just a citizen of the world interested in thoughtful criticism and appreciation of cultural symbols and messages, let’s think about some ideas to consider.

The Execution

Aside from the content, the execution of the game (if you’ll pardon the pun) is beautiful. The game developers pride themselves (and rightly so) on the implementation of the latest technological advancements to create realistic and immersive environments. If games are vicarious experiences, this one promises to be memorable.

The Story

Assassin’s Creed III is part of a series of games in which a main character is one in a line of ancestors who are assassins. The setting for this incarnation (or re-incarnation, as the case may be) is the American Revolution. The assassin, Connor, is part Mohawk, part British, but has a history of mistreatment by the Brits and sides with the American leaders philosophically. His job is to assassinate key people in the name of justice.

War and Assassination

ACIII is a violent video game. All video games, and all violent video games are not created equal. Especially, for my purposes here, all games are not bad and all games are not good. Neither are all violent games bad or good. I think one of the things to recommend ACIII is that it strives to depict the violence and brutality of the Revolutionary War in a realistic way. If I ask myself what would a boy playing this game take away from it, I think he might take away that war is brutal, and I think that would be a realistic and socially responsible lesson.

Another aspect to consider, especially if you are wondering whether or not to buy this game for your child, is the role of the assassin. If being an assassin is glamorized, might this send anti-social messages to a boy who’s playing the game? Well, I think the first step in answering that question would be for you to watch some footage of the gameplay and see if you believe the violence is glamorized. In other words, is violence and brutality depicted as cool and attractive? Is brutality justified? Here’s  the trailer.

Watching the trailer, I do think the assassinations are portrayed as cool and attractive. Does that mean I think boys who watch the game will likely assassinate someone? Not likely since there are many social sanctions against extreme violence. Might they do other aggressive things like play rougher or be more likely to hit or otherwise harm the boys they play with? Yes. That seems likely, extrapolating from past research. The characterization of the assassin glamorizes violence and justifies it. It presents an attractive hero perpetrating violence. These are some of the elements that have been shown in research to increase aggression in those exposed to this type of media violence. It's quite likely that these are also the elements that attract players to buy the game and that's why they were specifically included. The developers, no doubt, understand the psychology of the player and the desire to live an extreme fantasy like this one.

What about the fact that the assassin is half Native American and half British, siding with the Americans? Do I think that’s an inherently racist depiction or storyline? No. I’d say it makes sense from a dramatic perspective to form a character who is both insider and outsider and who has a past history with the enemy. One question to consider, though, is what message does it send about people of Mohawk ancestry? I think it sends multiple messages.

One facet of this characterization that’s important to consider is the fact that the average player will have little knowledge of Mohawk culture. When we don’t have any (or much) experience with the members of a culture, we often take what we know from the media. Because it’s unlikely that an assassin is a typical representative of any culture (thankfully), making a character who is an assassin means players may associate aggression as being a typical characteristic of the Mohawks. In general, though, do I think this is a racist depiction? No. Though Connor does wield a Tomahawk (which is historically accurate and also done for its appeal as a weapon), in general the characterization does not rely overly much on stereotypes.

This game might teach some realistic aspects of Mohawk culture, and the game developers strove to be realistic and accurate about Mohawk culture. What would be positive is if the game caused players to learn more about the Mohawk culture, specifically aspects that do not involve aggression. For example, game players might find out that Mohawks were key ironworkers that helped build the city of New York.

Mohawk Ironworker in NY

Mohawk Ironworker in NY

What the Game Developers Did Right

What makes a character a stereotype or not, for me, depends on several things, all of which have to do with good narrative and character development in general. Of course, game developers should stay away from stereotypes, negative or positive. Characters should be complicated and nuanced. The fact of their race should inform who they are and yet they should still be allowed to be a unique individual. Backstory about character motives help explain how factors, other than simplistic extrapolations from race, inform their desires, personal philosophy and actions. I think the developers at Ubisoft did a really nice job on all of these facets of this character.

Whatever you think about this, if you're a parent considering buying this for your child, I always recommend watching scenes from the game together and discussing them. Also, check out the ESRB rating and the content descriptors for this game.

References

1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed

Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft. On the web at: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/ac3/en-US/index.aspx